The CNMI has been looking for an industry to pair with tourism since garment manufacturing folded nearly a decade ago and a visiting expert from Hawaii said a tree crop that grows abundantly on the islands could just be the solution.
University of Hawaii Pacific Business Center Program director Dr. Tusi Avegalio said that breadfruit and one of its byproducts, breadfruit flour, can serve as a gluten-free alternative to wheat and rice that can readily be marketed not only in the U.S. mainland but throughout Asia as well.
Avegalio, or Dr. Tusi as he is more fondly called, was the Rotary Club of Saipan’s guest speaker during its weekly meeting yesterday at the Hyatt Regency Saipan.
He said the breadfruit tree that commonly grows in the CNMI is called ma’afala, which is one of the most robust of over 200 species of breadfruit in the world.
As far as breadfruit’s potential as an economic driver, Dr. Tusi pointed out that the high demand for gluten-free product in the U.S. has gone from $578 million in 2004, to $4.2 billion in 2012, and is projected to go to $6.6 billion in 2017.
“Gluten-free products in the U.S. have gone mainstream: they have gone from being a substitute for wheat flour for people who are gluten intolerant to a mainstream health product that sells for a premium not only in health food stores but also in Wal-Mart and supermarkets,” he said.
People who are gluten intolerant are afflicted with celiac disease, which affects about 3 percent of the U.S. population.
Dr. Tusi said they are currently working with C.H. Robinson, an $11-billion logistics company, and their subsidiary FoodSource, whose clients include Subway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart, to develop gluten-free flour from breadfruit.
“They have committed to working with us to develop a gluten-free flour made from breadfruit that is superior to what is on the market now, which is rice flour mixed with various gums and is currently being sold as a gluten-free flour for making breads and cakes.”
Breadfruit flour is more nutritious than wheat because, according to Dr. Tusi, “wheat has been grown in the same land for centuries so it requires more loading of fertilizer and etc. to try and move it up to a point where the nutritional value is as close as possible to what it was 100 or 200 years ago.”
He said breadfruit doesn’t have that kind of problem so its food nutrition is extremely high.
Kansas State University and University of Hawaii Food Science are also currently refining breadfruit flour so it can become good enough to market test.
“We’ve made it into a flour but we need to refine it to make it more palatable to the different markets. The American market has different tastes. They’re accustomed to wheat flour. We want to be able to refine breadfruit to where it is just as good and better,” said Dr. Tusi
What’s more interesting is that scientists are also developing gluten-free noodles, which will make an interesting impact in the food market in Asia, where the main staple, rice, is not gluten-free.
In order to tap into the potential of the tree crop, Dr. Tusi said that people of the Pacific Islands must first overcome its disadvantages.
“The reason why breadfruit hasn’t been on the radar is because it takes too long to grow. Up to seven plus years and also the fruit if you don’t use it within 48 hours it will start to rot. This is why having the technology to dry the fruit and dry it very quickly is key because we can then ship the dried breadfruit to where it can be processed,” he said.
Dr. Tusi said that Hawaii and many U.S.-affiliated states have also the land, farming expertise, and infrastructure in place to enter the gluten-free flour market and unlike the current producers of breadfruit flour, Hawaii, the CNMI, Guam, and American Samoa have open access to the U.S. market.
“Fiji, Samoa, and the Philippines are aggressively pursuing ways to commercialize their breadfruit, including producing breadfruit flour for the gluten-free market in the U.S. To date, though, there have only been some small Internet sales; they have not penetrated the U.S. market to any significant degree.”
Breadfruit, he said, has the potential of replicating or even surpassing the coconut or copra industry’s impact on the Pacific Islands back in the 1800s, when it was the main driving force of economic development.
“You see, there is a high demand for gluten-free products of any kind like breadfruit. Copra was the main tree product in all of the Pacific Islands. They dried it and shipped it and that’s how they generated income locally. The breadfruit can do the same thing in the 21st century.”